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A TALE OF TWO BOOK REVIEWS
Shelby Cobra Fifty Years and
Steve McQueen: A Passion for Speed

This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Fri, Nov 11, 2011

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

shelby-cobra-and-steve-mcqueen
Photo by Doug Stokes

PROLOGUE: And this is the truth … No one, not one single soul, old, young, or in between, gets to walk by our house (even on far side of the road some 75 feet away from our nearest fence), let along drop a package (or two) on our front porch without our two little (rescue) dogs (Pickle and Olive) sounding a full song barking alarm replete with running and growling embellishments. My office, situated as it is, way in the back, is sited precisely where the whole house shields my ears from the noises of the street (and front porch). However, my one, cracked, dusty window peers out on the side yard where the above-indicates two-dog "pack" hangs and waits for all manner of intruders. As I said, no one gets on (or even near) this property without a ruckus being raised right outside my window. So, imagine my surprise when I found two UPS boxes on my porch, delivered there without even so much as the slightest grrr, yip, grank, or ralp being issued by the Stokes security team. Some say that animals can sense things that we lesser beings cannot. I say that my two faithful young lady pups sensed the sort of classic pictures and accompanying words that I found on opening these books and were simply being reverent. Okay, you got a better explanation? - Doug DUAL (BOOK) REVIEW By Doug Stokes SHELBY COBRA FIFTY YEARS By Colin Comer Quayside/Motorbooks 259 pages: 309 color photos, 119 b/w photos ISBN-13: 978-0-7603-4029-6 $40.00 US Both of these books contain new material, new photos, and new insights into two iconic subjects that all concerned surely had thought wrung dry long ago. At this point and before we start (because I've already read both), I recommend them both almost unequivocally. There have been good books published on both subjects. These two add nicely to those lists and rate among some of the best. We'll branch off in minute or two, but remember the heady era that both of these driving dudes were working in. The brilliantly-textured Los Angeles of the time. Hot rodders, sports car racers, lakes guys, drag racers. Gurney, Hill, Hudson, Ginther, Edelbrock, Drake, Guldstrand, Moon, Miles, Krause, Balchowsky, Brock, Bondurant, Iskenderian, Hooper, Spencer, Titus, Friedman, Thompson, Reventlow, Batchelor, Remington, all on the scene at the same time with Sports Car Graphic Magazine to stir the stuff, and Riverside Raceway coming on line. All factors in the wonderful admixture that was LA for what seemed like a wonderfully long time "after the war". Strangely enough, there's little (if anything) written about any cross-contact between these two California-based gods of the good stuff. Like many people who are referred to by most by only one name, both of these guys, Shelby and McQueen, were self-sufficient SOBs who definitely went their own ways. One died way too young, the other has slipped out of death's grip so many times most of us have lost count. And we still can't get enough of either of them. Let's talk books here: Both books are of what once was called coffee table size, we now refer to it as "large format" and that's all the better to view the cascade of candid shots that both contain. For the Cobra fan (and who among us is not?) here's added grist to the holy history of the fabled snake and the snake oil salesman who made better than good on his wildest promises … Along the way taking American hearts and minds into the world of European sports car competition by transforming a spindly English teapot with faux-Ferrari coachwork into the most fearsome beast on four wheels and with it, through it, building an empire and a legend at the same time. "Shelby Cobra Fifty Years" is more scrapbook than scholarly tome. There are other books that dutifully chronicle every nut and bolt and drop of sweat (the best of which, "The Cobra-Ferrari Wars" by Michael Shoen is back in print and should be in every Cobra fanatic's library) ever wrenched together or wiped away with a greasy shop rag. No, this book rocks along with anecdotes, unusual photos, and even a nice selection of Cobra-based marketing and myriad sales gee-gaws (like model kits, clothing, underarm deodorant "Carroll Shelby's Pit Stop", key fobs, decals, coffee cups, chili mix, greeting cards, hats, and music recordings). After that chapter the only question that remained for me was why there was never a Carroll Shelby comic book, computer game that had the player out-foxing old man Ferrari, or a feature film. I know that Cobra-branded wearables were not the first (remember MG Mitten, with those jaunty driving hats with "Jaguar", "Austin-Healey", and "Triumph" tasteful embroidered on them?), but the Cobra name and T-Shirts just seemed to explode together in the late 60's and that beat goes on, right to tomorrow. At book's end author Comer is understanding enough of "Cobra Fever" to include a chapter on all the multitude of pretenders to the throne. Kit cars, replicas, rip-offs, homages, and "continuation" cars are all hit on in his concluding chapter. From machines that are so good that they are no good, to the cars that are claimed to have been built from a stash of hitherto unknown NOS parts and pieces, the seemingly Byzantine rules and regs of Cobra reality are touched on and (as best he can) delineated. This book is a must-have on a number of levels for true believers, ordained (in the introduction) by the old chicken farmer himself, Mister Shelby. But, you're also going to meet the rest of the cast, the ones who worked on the cars, who drove them, and who carried the Cobra cause on their willing shoulders from LA to the far reaches of everywhere in the world where FIA Championship Sports Car Racing was run. That (not always happy, not always one-for-all-etc) band of bad boys was, perhaps the strongest, most talented group of full-out, real racing people ever assembled. They're all here in this half-century appreciation, and Ol' Shel's there too.

steve-mcqueen-a-passion-for-speed

REVIEW TWO STEVE McQUEEN: A PASSION FOR SPEED By Frederic Brun Quayside/Motorbooks 192 pages: 100 color photos, 60 b/w photos ISBN-13: 978-0-7603-4248-0 $40.00 US Sometimes, maybe its just my age, I get Steve McQueen and James Dean mixed up. Both gents were compact, brooding, cigarette-smoking movie stars. Both were Porsche guys and both guys were (capital "D") Drivers. Both of them were respected actors, one far longer than the other, but both left their respective scenes far earlier than anyone really wanted them to go. Both, because of something so cool, so innate, so attractive in a way that a defiant little bird with a broken wing is attractive, long ago became icons. So, when I look at Steve McQueen's half-smiling face looking out right through the camera on the cover of this one, I see more than a movie star, I see a guy that every guy wanted to be like, even if only for a few hours a day. I see an irresistible guy who's whole persona radiated the: "Hey … Understand … I'm going to be trouble … But you're going to love it." This book is neatly (at least as neatly as one can dealing with this guy) divided into McQueen' various "passions". First, foremost his passion for speed, the pursuit of it came out of nowhere and seemed to just take over his life. As soon as he made any sort of money acting, the dough went into increasingly exotic, high-performance automobiles, each one more exotic and high-performance than the next. Here Brun does a nice job of mostly letting full and cross-over pages of McQueen and his machines tell the story. You can see the actor in there, mastering the beasts, getting full value out of each one, whipping them into a frenzy of fast and totally relishing the ability to control them. Chapters follow that show McQueen tuning his lithe body up like he'd wrench on one of his cars. He's lean, lacking an once of body fat and looking like a living temple of doom doing his level best to prove that cigarettes cut down on one's appetite, and that alcohol, taken in immoderation, is a elixir. Playing a 19-year old in "Nevada Smith" at 36 was no big deal, his death from a particularily virulent form of cancer at age 50 was. Many of the later photos in this very personal book belie the fragile grip that he really had on life. He seems made of some sort of unbreakable substance, unbreakable. Additional chapters recall movie career and tally the films that he made. Some were good, some not so good, but a few (and they mark the man) were great. It was there that McQueen most seemed to be playing "himself". Confident and controlled, but a tightly compressed coil spring just below the calm. He played men who were friendly to friendlies and who were deadly to their enemies. There was always a focal point in evidence. Summing this one up, what we have here is essentially a wonderful picture book with page after page of photos of Steve McQueen that are impossibly hard not to stare deeply into. Somehow, even these 30 years since he died haven't been able to dim his flinty blue (so evident even in black and white photos) eyes squinting back at us telling us that he's having one hell of a time. Don't get me wrong, the writing is OK, but, if you're anything like this reader, you'll only be able to concentrate on the printed words sometime after three or four passes through the visuals. You know, looking at all these photos, I honestly don't think that Steve McQueen really was ever, "… just waiting" (as in his character Michael Delaney's oft-quote line from the film Le Mans), no, this guy seems to be totally in the moment in every one of the 160 photos in this intriguing book. -DS COMPLAINT: Brun is very tough on "Le Mans", at one point in this book calling it "… a flop …" with "… a weak, unconnected storyline" and an "…overreliance on sometime unremarkable racing action … barely watchable." To which I say: BULLSHIT! Honestly, the film "Le Mans", as dry and seeming stilted as it is. Is, for many who have driven fast, in anger, in competition, perhaps the most truthful feature film about racing ever made. What it lacks in hype, it more than make up for in real racing situations and a sort of honesty that makes authentic racers feel the hair on the back of their necks starting to twitch. Case in point, when the older driver tells his wife that he will retire, "… after this one", everyone in the audience KNOWS: This guy gets it! … And he does. Only his fate, in the racing driver's world is worse than dieing in an awful wreck on the Mulsanne … He's about to get into the race car for the last desperate sprint to the finish line, and the team manager stops him getting in the car, and replaces him with another driver, another (faster) driver. Gut shot, great filmmaking, as said earlier, truthful … painfully so. EPILOGUE(S): Growing up (since age 12 in 1952) in California, and becoming a car nut early-on, I'm quite sure that no one will have any trouble believing that I had a couple of personal stories about the subject of one of these books, and the "inventor" of the subject of the other. McQueen first: I remember him and his Lotus 11 at Santa Barbara … He was that TV actor with that sawed-off rifle then. He ran hard and was sort of reclusive in the paddock. A bigger "Hollywood" deal that weekend deal was driver Don Peck and the fact that his actor-brother Greg had come to the races to watch Don drive. (Many) years later, I ran into McQueen in a drugstore in Bel-Air, we sort of got to the register at the same time, and I did the "After you …" thing. I was buying gum or Tic-Tacs and he was buying a pack of cigarettes (no, I did not note the brand). I complimented him on "LeMans" saying something about being a racing person myself and how much I had appreciated the realism of his film. He gave me a quick crack of smile, said "Thanks" and was gone. Shelby: As a young guy I had a doctor (Chet Burgraff, DO/MD) who was also something of an amateur sports car racer (by way of disclosure, I had picked him out solely because of that fact). "Doctor Birdbath" (as he was nicknamed) got me a part-time job pulling up the snow fence that was used for crowd control at Cal Club races on the Pomona Fairground's parking lot. It was tough work, but the perks included pit passes and, one weekend, a ride around the race course as a passenger in one of the "flag cars" that were sent out between each division's races to clear the course. My ride was to be with Carroll Shelby, who I had seen smack a 4.9 Ferrari into one of those trees along the back straight a couple of years before and who had just won the 24 Hour race at Le Mans driving with Roy Salvadori. Mister Shelby rolled up in a sort of beige colored AC Ace that sat sort of funny and sounded even "funnier". All I remember about that ride was seeing the painted parking lines in certain sections of the track go under the car from my side of the cockpit (rather than from straight-on). Strangely enough, my memory of that epic ride has no soundtrack. It seemed almost as though we were standing still and the road was rushing back at us. It was that elusive dance with traction the poets of the sport mention only occasionally and then in hushed tones. Fully on top of his craft, Shelby gave me the ride that I've never forgotten, and never will. - Doug Stokes

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Shelby Cobra Fifty Years is available on Amazon here Steve McQueen: A Passion for Speed is available on Amazon here

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